[Ip-health] Nature editorial: Coronavirus: everyone wins when patents are pooled

James Love james.love at keionline.org
Fri May 22 09:36:55 PDT 2020


Coronavirus: everyone wins when patents are pooled

It took a collaborative global effort to reveal the structures of key
coronavirus proteins. That spirit is being tested as vaccine development
gets under way.

Last week, the leaders of Ghana, Pakistan, Senegal and South Africa joined
more than 100 former heads of government, senior officials and leading
researchers in an open letter urging that scientific research and
intellectual property on coronavirus vaccines be shared freely — and that
vaccines be distributed fairly — so that the poorest countries do not lose
out. It is unfortunate that such a letter needed to be written in the
middle of the worst pandemic of the past 50 years. But it was unavoidable,
because some governments — including those funding the first wave of
research and clinical trials — have not yet committed to the principles of
fully open science and innovation.

This contrasts sharply with the rapid sharing of findings and expertise
among researchers that is being reported daily. This week, we cover one of
many examples of such collaboration. Since January, researchers have been
working across the globe and around the clock to reveal the structures of
key proteins that make up the new coronavirus. Their achievements are the
result of free-flowing exchange between university laboratories and
national synchrotron facilities in countries including China, Germany, the
United Kingdom and the United States. Work that would normally have taken
months — possibly even years — has been completed in weeks. But rather than
building on this cooperation, some countries are retreating into a kind of
techno-protectionism, which serves neither science nor society.

On 10 January, when researchers in China and Australia shared the genome
sequence1 for SARS-CoV-2 online, a global network of biologists interested
in the structure of viral proteins set to work. The network included the
Center for Structural Genomics of Infectious Diseases, a consortium of 40
scientists across 8 institutions in the United States and Canada, which
played a central part in the project.

Top of the consortium’s to-do list was to plan which proteins to tackle
first, and which lab would take on which protein; the teams then set about
getting high-resolution snapshots of these proteins, which enable the virus
to enter cells and replicate. Thanks to this work and similar efforts
elsewhere, teams have now solved more than 170 structures of whole or
partial proteins alone or bound to a drug or receptor. The visualizations
generated by this work can be used to find ways to neutralize the virus
with drugs or vaccines.

Simultaneously, a team of structural biologists at ShanghaiTech University
in China began the task of revealing the structure of a key enzyme, Mpro,
that the virus needs to replicate. Work that took two months for SARS-CoV,
the virus that caused the outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome
(SARS) in 2003, this time took just one week. The team deposited its
results in the Protein Data Bank — an open-access digital repository for 3D
biological structures — ready for researchers around the world to access.
As they worked, Shanghai team members collaborated with structural
biologists at the University of Oxford, UK, to share knowledge and avoid

But when it comes to distributing some of the fruits of that knowledge,
this spirit of cooperation looks to be at risk. It is crucial that any
vaccine, once proved to work, can be manufactured and distributed quickly
in every country. For this to happen, the holders of intellectual property
must pool their know-how — as the developers of open-source software do —
so that companies large and small can participate in this emergency effort.
Such intellectual-property sharing initiatives are under way, but, as
Nature went to press, neither the US nor UK governments seemed ready to
support these efforts, preferring to work according to a more conventional
model whereby intellectual property for a vaccine is held by those that
developed it, and then licensed to anyone wanting to manufacture it.

This is unacceptable during a pandemic, when lives are at stake and the
world’s population needs to be immunized. The research that has got us to
this point has been pooled, and governments around the world are
shouldering much of the risk of funding the vaccine effort. For these
reasons, intellectual property has to be shared.

Patent pooling is not simple, but there’s a wealth of literature from
life-sciences patent law and case studies from the field of development
studies that can help to make it work. And there is an important principle
at stake. There is little justice, as economist Mariana Mazzucato at
University College London often argues, if citizens have to bear many of
the financial risks in such an endeavour, but most of the profits go to a
small group of companies (and possibly a few universities) once a vaccine
is ready to be rolled out.

Scientists are not exempt from competition: the race to publish a paper or
patent a molecule is all too common. But in the race to solve the structure
of SARS-CoV-2, the competitors have mostly worked together and shared
credit — and that is how they, and the hundreds of researchers working in
complementary fields, must continue to work as vaccines and drugs move into
clinical trials.

It is a tribute to those scientists involved so far that they immediately
understood that a pandemic requires a vastly different way of working. It
is a tragedy that some national governments do not.

Nature 581, 240 (2020)

doi: 10.1038/d41586-020-01441-2
1. Wu, F. et al. Nature 579, 265–269 (2020).

James Love.  Knowledge Ecology International
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